25 September 2018 11:29 AM



Why Banning Crackers And Instituting Odd-Even Isn’t Enough: #WeCantBreathe

Why Banning Crackers And Instituting Odd-Even Isn’t Enough: #WeCantBreathe

NEW DELHI: As November approaches in Delhi and the temperatures dip, the city is soon engulfed in a thick blanket of pollution. Current pollution levels in India’s capital city are thirty times higher than the World Health Organisation’s safe level, and doctors are warning of a public health emergency. 6000 schools in the city have been forced to close, as children -- along with the elderly -- are the most vulnerable.

The air quality index touched 999 in several parts of Delhi -- that’s 10 times the levels reported in Beijing, a city notorious for its pollution levels, where masks are a part of everyday life. Experts say that the pollution levels in the city are akin to smoking 50 cigarettes a day. Residents are complaining about respiratory problems and illnesses -- with those who work outside -- labourers, autorickshaw drivers, vegetable vendors and others amongst the most marginalised -- most at risk.

“My eyes sting,” says Raju, an autorickshaw driver I spoke to this morning. “Winters have always been unforgiving… the harshness of the cold is particularly difficult, but the last few years have brought with them added misery.” “My mother is elderly and has always suffered from lung problems, and last winter she fell very sick. The doctors told her to stay indoors in the early mornings. They said pollution levels are at their worst at that time of day. She’s never made a full recovery, and every year, as winter sets in, we worry that the pollution is going to kill her.”

That afternoon, I met a close friend for lunch. She walked into the restaurant with dark glasses and an intimidating mask -- an essential for those who can afford it in the capital city. “I’m choking,” she said. “It’s like I’m a prisoner at home … I can’t even think of venturing out because the pollution makes me cough and wheeze. Even the mask barely helps.” I told her I was honoured that she was risking her well being for me, but the rather dramatic statement got us talking. Why were we in this mess? Surely this problem could be prevented?

“If it’s about the crackers then why can’t the government ban them outright? Why this half hearted ban on sales, which didn’t achieve anything as people managed to get crackers and burst them through Diwali anyway?” My friend was referring to the use of crackers through Diwali -- which has received its fair share of flak for contributing to the rising levels of pollution in the city. “Do you know politicians have defended the use of crackers?” I asked her. “I know someone who posted an anti-cracker message on Twitter and has several politicians chastise her -- saying crackers on Diwali are part of our ‘tradition.’”

“And now they are starting that stupid odd-even again,” my friend continued. “The only thing that serves is to reduce traffic on the road, I don’t think it helps pollution whatsoever!”

She’s right, partially -- as cars are not the biggest pollutants. Road dust contributes to 56 percent of PM10 pollution and construction is 14 percent of the culprit. Vehicles come in at about 9 percent. Of this amount, four wheelers make up a measly 10 percent, with trucks clocking in 46 percent and two-wheelers making up 33 percent -- so just regulating trucks and two wheelers would suffice (and two wheelers are exempt from odd-even *cough - vote bank - cough*).

The point I’m trying to make is that while banning crackers and instituting odd-even is a small part of the solution, making pollution about crackers and cars is completely missing the point. Of course crackers should be banned and odd-even should be instituted, but what are we doing about the major pollutants -- road dust, construction and emissions from industry.

Most of all -- what are we doing about the source of it all? Crop burning. Every year in Punjab, about 7 to 8 million metric tonnes of paddy residue is burnt openly. Toxic chemicals are released in the atmosphere, and although farmers have been cautioned against this practice, they continue with it because it’s cost effective.

Farmers have repeatedly blamed the state government for denying financial assistance that would enable them to get rid of paddy residue without resorting to burning. The state government has to provide Rs 200 per quintal to farmers as bonus or financial assistance which has been denied so far -- and crop burning continues.

The fact of the matter is, that unless incentivised to stop -- either through compensation or other measures, farmers will continue to burn stubble because it has no economic value to them, and collecting it in fact comes with a cost.

Of course, have our politicians done anything to address this problem? Nope. Why? Because farmers are a key vote bank, and compensation costs money that state governments don’t want to spend.

The result is that we have made firecrackers and four wheelers the scapegoats. The whole rhetoric has come to focus on banning firecrackers and instituting odd-even -- when measures such as that are only piecemeal and will never be able to effectively tackle the problem of pollution in New Delhi and around it.

What we need is a decisive and strong leadership, that is focused on the bigger picture on not their vote bank. Is that too much to ask for?